Dear Readers, if there is a better tree than the rowan for a small garden, I have yet to hear of it. In spring, it’s covered in frothy white blossom.
In summer, its leaves are filmy and cast little shadow. In the autumn it’s often covered in berries, and its leaves turn to a variety of orange/copper/scarlet shades. Plus, the berries will stay on the tree through the winter, unless they are all gobbled up by birds.
Rowans are native from Madeira and Iceland right the way to Northern China. They tolerate poor soil, and one of the pioneer species that pop up when a new habitat becomes available. Their good manners and graceful appearance have made them a popular choice for a street tree, with one road in Archway planted with just this species.
However, just as the only problem with dogs is that they don’t live as long as we do, so it is with the rowan. In his excellent book ‘London’s Street Trees’, Paul Wood suggests that 25 years is a ‘good innings’ for a rowan, after which another tree will have to be planted in its place. So, this street could conceivably lose all its rowans at once.
The North London trees look surprisingly tall for what is often a stunted little tree. However, there is one individual tree in the Chilterns which is 28m tall, quite a height for a rowan.
Apart from its year-round attractiveness, the rowan is a most excellent tree for wildlife. You might be lucky enough to see waxwings munching on the berries, and redwings and fieldfares are also big fans, along with blackbirds.
35 different species of butterfly and moth caterpillar are also associated with the rowan, from the rather dandy leopard moth (Zeuzera pyrina) to the beautiful brocade (Lacanobia contigua)
Rowan has a rich folklore: it used to be planted as a protection against witches, and in parts of Scotland there is still a taboo against cutting down a rowan tree, especially when it is close to houses. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey stresses that it’s the wood of the tree that is seen as potent, rather than the berries:
‘Rowan boughs were hung over stables and byres in the Highlands, used for stirring cream in the Lake District and cut for pocket charms against rheumatism in Cornwall’.
The poet Kathleen Raine and the author Gavin Maxwell (of Ring of Bright Water fame) had a most difficult relationship: passionate and all-encompassing on her side, rather more utilitarian on Maxwell’s side, as he was gay and Raine couldn’t accept this. On one occasion, when Maxwell had brought a lover home with him , Raine went to the rowan tree outside Maxwell’s house on the West Coast of Scotland and cursed him:
“Let Gavin suffer in this place, as I am suffering now.“
Shortly after this, Maxwell’s pet otter Mijbil was run down and killed (partly as a result of Raine letting the animal off its lead). Raine always believed that her curse had called something evil down upon Maxwell’s head and never forgave herself, though Maxwell, generously, forgave her. Then Maxwell’s house burned down. It seems that there might be rather more to the power of the rowan than we give it credit for. Leastways, it’s probably best not put such things to the test.
I recently acquired a rather lovely book called ‘Scottish Plant Lore – An Illustrated Flora‘ by Gregory J. Kenicer. In it, he describes how shepherd girls would usually drive their sheep with a staff made from Rowan wood, and how in Strathspey livestock were made to pass through a hoop made of rowan in the morning and evening, as a charm against black magic. It was also noted that rowan trees often grew around standing stones, and that one eighteenth century writer, Lightfoot (1777) thought that these might have been the remnants of trees planted by the druids who used to gather there.
Now, you might be tempted to do something clever with the berries of the rowan, and indeed they are edible (though like so many things they are said to be better after frost). They contain very high levels of Vitamin C (good) but are also high in tannins (bad). The most common use is to turn them into a jelly that can be eaten with cold meats or cheese, but look! Here’s a recipe for rowan Turkish delight. I include it in honour of my poor old Dad, who loved the stuff, and who could get himself covered in powdered sugar faster than anyone I ever met.
Incidentally, the eattheweeds website is a most excellent source of inspiration for anyone who forages. There are some really imaginative ideas.
Medicinally, the berries have been prescribed for stomach complaints and to staunch bleeding – I suspect that the tannins have a lot to do with any perceived efficacy. Be careful though, as some sources suggest that the berries can be poisonous.
The leaves have been used to make remedies for sore eyes, asthma, rheumatism and colds.
Now, as previously mentioned, the wood of rowan is thought to be the most potent part of the plant, so it comes as no surprise that when I search for ‘rowan wood’ I find a plethora of wands, walking sticks and amulets made from the material. But what an attractive timber it is! One sculptor in wood described it as his ‘favourite wood for turning’.
There also seem to be a wide variety of Harry Potter-themed items made out of rowan, but having only read the first volume in the series (and that decades ago) I’ll have to rely on you to tell me what the possible connections are.
Incidentally, the word ‘rowan’ is thought to come from an Old Norse word meaning ‘to redden’, probably a reference to the berries (though at this time of year it occurs to me that it could also refer to the leaves). And I had totally forgotten that the rowan is mentioned in the lovely Scottish folksong ‘Mairi’s Wedding’:
Red her cheeks as rowans are,
bright her eyes as any star,
fairest of them all by far,
is our darling Mairi.
Gosh, this almost has me dancing. Have a listen here and see if you can avoid jiggling about.
And, to end with, a poem by Seamus Heaney. He decided on the last line after he heard an interview with Fionn mac Cumhaill, the legendary Irish figure, who, when asked what the best music in the world was, replied ‘the music of what happens’.
Song by Seamus Heaney
A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.
There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.
Photo One By Kenraiz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4083172
Photo Two By Eeno11 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5029715
Photo Three by By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7195872
Photo Four by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6986929
Photo Five by Brian Turner / Rowan Tree on Feinn Loch – Kilmelford
Photo Seven from https://foragerchef.com/rowanberries/
Photo Eight By Per Grunnet – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61399948